Basins:
BOOMTOWN SOCIAL EFFECTS

Haleigh Ryneski

 RV park that are homes of the oil workers in Watford City, ND. (Credit:  Tom Haines )

RV park that are homes of the oil workers in Watford City, ND. (Credit: Tom Haines)

 

Fossil fuel extraction sites have expanded across the United States in recent decades, mostly centered on coal and oil basins. This development has caused rapid growth in local towns, enlarging them into boomtowns, with both the benefits and strains of transitioning economies. This page will provide an analysis of changes in economics, job industries, population, crime rates and the mental health of people affected. 

Changes in the Economy

As population increases due to new job opportunities, the cost of living rises, and the demand for better infrastructure increases (Weinstein). Private infrastructures includes new business franchises, real-estate property, and recreational activities such as movie theaters or gyms. Public infrastructure can include schools, fire trucks or sewer lines. Boomtowns are typically not fiscally prepared to maintain the new maintenance after the inevitable bust, creating an uneven economy, and sometimes making them poorer than before the boom (See Effects on Rural Cultures).

Those impacted the most are long-time residents, low-income families, and Indigenous peoples. When Darwin, Australia hosted a ConocoPhillips plant near from the city, it held the title of having the highest cost of living standard in Australia (Ennis). Soon after, much of the population (mostly Indigenous to the area) had to relocate because they could no longer afford to live there.

One industry that benefits greatly from the economic boom is real estate. As the demand for more living space arises with sudden population growth, real estate agencies are able to increase property prices. After ConocoPhillips' presence in Darwin, the median price for a three bedroom house was $660,000. The median for all capital cities in Australia was $533,000 (Ennis). While this negatively affects much of the working-class population due to high competition, long-time residents found a rise in their original property value.

Changes in Employment

Employment rises dramatically in the early stages of a boom to provide high-paying jobs with little experience required. Across the United States on average, counties impacted by oil shale development have a 1.3% annual increase in employment and a 2.7% annual increase in earnings (Weinstein). Rural boomtowns, such as ones located near the Bakken Shale Oil Basin in North Dakota, benefit more than larger, urban boom-towns due to a previous lack of economic opportunities.

Fossil fuel employment creates an uneven distribution of wages in communities. As population increases, more services are needed but the original wages do not increase. A teacher, for example, who used to have the workload for a small-sized class can take on an even larger workload for more students. The teachers' wages has not increased, causing more work for the same pay (Cortese). 

More experienced workers are often imported to replace local workers. For example, a long-time resident who was chief of police may be replaced by a more “experienced” chief from an urban area. The creation of new roles can also occur, such as a vice principal to assist the principal of a school. If more employment is required in an establishment, such as a school, teachers can go from teaching multiple subjects to just one subject (Cortese). 

 In the first 6 years of a fracking boom (2004-2010) Pennsylvania gained approximately 10,000 oil and gas jobs compared to local states with less fossil fuel activity (Credit:  Weinstein ))

In the first 6 years of a fracking boom (2004-2010) Pennsylvania gained approximately 10,000 oil and gas jobs compared to local states with less fossil fuel activity (Credit: Weinstein))

Changes in Population

 

 A women Ironing her and her husbands clothes, inside the RV they share, after leaving their home to find employment in Watford City ND. (Credit:  Tom Haines )

A women Ironing her and her husbands clothes, inside the RV they share, after leaving their home to find employment in Watford City ND. (Credit: Tom Haines)

 

New types and patterns of population can alter a boomtown. During a boom, primarily young adult males relocate to these cities to make a quick profit, causing overcrowding. Without appropriate infrastructure to keep up with the demand, restaurants, bars, local stores and living situations become flooded with people, changing the social dynamic. The sense of community declines when large groups of strangers try to intermingle.

Tensions between longtime residents and newcomers can generate hostility. Long-time residents feel as though their home ground is being taken over, while newcomers do not feel as welcomed as they would have liked. Interactions become more formal and contractual as opposed to personal and face-to-face. Name calling can take place, as longtime residents may refer to basin employees as “rig-pigs” or “gas-holes” (Ruddell).

Furthermore, one aspect to be taken into consideration is the female-to-male ratio. Because boomtowns draw in large numbers of male workers, an uneven gender ratio can cause multitude of issues for women such as concerns for safety at night, gender inequality in the workforce, sexual harassment, prostitution and rape (See Women) . During my field research, I interviewed a longtime friend, Kyle Kramer, who works for ExxonMobil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. One of my questions was, “What is the female-to-male ratio where you work?” After a pause he responded by explaining how he only knew a total of five women in his workplace and that they usually are found in the housekeeping or administrative industry and are assigned separate living areas (Kramer).

Another change due to rapid population growth is the mix of different races, classes, religions, and beliefs. Benefits that derive from this mix have been shown through an increase in attendance at churches and community clubs (Cortese). The backlash of mixing can be the obvious conflict of interest including racial differences and income differences, particularly among youth.

Changes in Crime Rates

In many studies on boomtowns across the world, an increase in the crime rate is a prominently analyzed outcome of energy development. Proof of such increases has been shown through court cases, 911 calls and police reports. Because boomtown employers hire quickly and do not require much work experience, people such as registered sex offenders or convicts can be hired more easily (Ruddell). Population booms generate more criminals than police per capita. Law enforcement agencies cannot keep up which leads to an overcrowding of jails and fewer EMT or firefighter responders, reducing safety measures. Perception of safety then becomes misconstrued when local residents believe that they are more unsafe than they realistically are (Ruddell).

Drugs and alcohol have a prominent influence on crime increases. Usually, workers are on a schedule (called Fly-in-Fly-out or Drive-in-Drive-out) whereby employees work two or three weeks on and two to three weeks off (Ruddell). Schedules like these create large gaps between shifts, leaving an employee free time. Because workers are new and isolated from the community, they often resort to gathering at crowded bars or using drugs in their spare time. My interviewee, Kyle Kramer, stated his observation on the basin is that a majority of the men he works with are alcoholics (Kramer).

  Data comparing reported violence by police to employment increases in Williston, North Dakota near Bakken Shale Oil Basin (Credit: U.S Department of Labor )

Data comparing reported violence by police to employment increases in Williston, North Dakota near Bakken Shale Oil Basin (Credit:U.S Department of Labor)

Changes in Mental Stability

Of all social dynamics altered as a boomtown arises, alteration of mental well-being is one of the most disturbing. Constant relocation in search of employment can create strain on physical and mental health. Feelings of isolation, depression, and loneliness can cause a rig worker to take up drugs or alcohol. Divorce rates are higher, potentially leading to child neglect.

Population influx can create an uneven ratio of services provided to the number of citizens needing treatment (Cortese). Services can either be underprovided or go through boom periods. For example, high school counselors for neglected youth will have a much higher workload and not enough counselors to meet demands. High rates of those seeking divorce can make a marriage counselor or law firm boom. The number of new residents at Alcoholics Anonymous chapters can also increase.

Youth being raised in boomtowns can have the hardest time maintaining a stable mental well-being. William Freudenberg performed a study comparing perceptions of quality of life by adults and high school students in four different communities in Colorado. One of these communities was mostly impacted by energy development, so he compared that area to other boomtowns. His research found that students in the main boomtown had far less interest in supporting energy development, less satisfaction with locality and life, and more alienation than adults and students in other communities. Overall, every student in all towns combined ranked less satisfaction than adults in all categories. Another component Freudenberg revealed was that students in the main boomtown high school felt far less safe attending school than students elsewhere (Freudenberg). 

  Adults generally have more positive attitudes and lower levels of alienation than adolescents. Youth in boom-towns experience lower levels of satisfaction with life and more alienation than any other group (Credit:  Freudenberg )

Adults generally have more positive attitudes and lower levels of alienation than adolescents. Youth in boom-towns experience lower levels of satisfaction with life and more alienation than any other group (Credit: Freudenberg)

Conclusion

Due to the continuous push for fossil fuel extraction, more boomtowns are created constantly. In turn, researchers and psychologists have gained interest in the social changes of boomtowns at different scales and locations. Some boomtowns may be as large as in the Bakken Shale Oil Basin of North Dakota or as small as villages located near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Most studies typically find one common conclusion: all boomtowns must not depend on just one energy development but other diversified sources of income to avoid a bust.

Rick Ruddell, a professor with a PhD in Justice Studies concludes: 

“Our investigations clearly show that the social impacts of boomtown growth involve changes far beyond the mere increase in population, strain on municipal services, and the mental health problems usually attributed to such strains and which constitute the bulk of ‘socioeconomic’ impact assessments. Less visible but considerably more important for the long range are the underlying changes in the social structure and cultural systems that are, and will continue to be, precipitated by energy-related boom-town developments . Such changes are not seriously mediated by providing more ‘adequate’ housing, by ‘professionalizing’ the police department, or by building a mental health center. Such solutions are, in fact, parts of the problem… our major point is that the focus of the student of social impacts should be directed toward structural and cultural changes that are occurring in these communities.” (Ruddell & Ortiz).

Sources 

Cortese, C.F. & Jones, B. (1977). The sociological analysis of boomtowns. Western Sociological.

Ennis, G., Finlayson, M. & Spearing, G. (2013). Expecting a boomtown? Exploring potential housing - related impacts of large scale resource developments in Darwin. Geographies: Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography.

Freudenburg, R. W. (1984). Boomtown's Youth: The differential impacts of rapid community growth on adolescents and adults. American Sociological Association.

Kramer, Kyle. (2015, November 19). Ethnography Paper. Personal Interview.

Ruddell, R., & Ortiz, R.N. (2014). Boomtown blues: Long-term community perceptions of crime and disorder. American Journal of Criminal Justice.

Weinstein, A.L. (2014). Unconventional oil and gas development’s impact on state and local economies. The Magazine of Food, Farm, and Resource Issues.